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Conservative groups push back against rule defining social worker, counselor privacy policies

The Maine Department of Education wants to finalize rules that would ensure counseling sessions between children and school employees stay private. The issue is drawing sharp opposition from conservative groups, who say parents have a right to know.

The proposed rules are five pages long. But one sentence has attracted the attention of so-called "parents' rights" groups: a line saying those workers cannot be required to disclose the contents of a counseling session to family or legal guardians.

There are exceptions for when a child's life is in danger or a victim of abuse. Supporters, like David Hughes of Winthrop, told the Legislature's education committee on Thursday that the rule change is critical to ensure children feel like they have a safe adult to process their feelings with.

"Parents have rights. But those rights don't trump the safety of those children," he said. "If you pay for a therapist, you don't get to know what's going on in that session, unless you want to sit in on it."

Groups like Maine Parental Rights and Parents' Rights in Education Maine have opposed the rules for months. Dozens of people submitted testimony saying parents have the right know if their child is exploring different gender and sexual identities.

"The Supreme Court has consistently held that parents have a fundamental right to control and direct the education upbringing and health care decisions of their children," said Amber Lavigne of Newcastle. "Do what is constitutionally right for the parents in this beautiful state of Maine. Thank you."

Lavigne sued a school district in Damariscotta in federal court this weekafter accusing officials of keeping her child's gender identity a secret from her. She is represented by the Goldwater Institute, a national conservative group.

The resistance is part of a greater cultural backlash that has included attempts to ban books and teachings about LGBTQ+ issues. Those battles have been playing out in school boards in recent years.

The bill that would finalize the rule has an emergency clause which would make the rule take effect immediately upon passage.

Reporter Caitlin Andrews came to Maine Public in 2023 after nearly eight years in print journalism. She hails from New Hampshire originally.